Patrick Nagel’s illustrations helped define the visual palate of the 1980s, and his immense contribution to the pages of Playboy cemented him as a legend. His fascination with the female form and the sensuality of her gaze captivated those who knew his art, even though many never knew his name. Perhaps his most iconic contribution to pop culture was the cover of Rio, Duran Duran’s 1982 album, but he contributed to Playboy sections like After Hours, Forum and the Advisor throughout his tragically brief career. A rollicking man of sarcastic wit and ritualistic martinis, Nagel was beloved both as an artist and as a person.
Earlier this year, author, entrepreneur and Nagel collector Rob Frankel saw the release of his book The Artist Who Loved Women. We spoke to Frankel about the man he maintains was a person of covert fame—everyone knew his work but not the man who made it.
What set off the spark of interest in Patrick Nagel?
It was probably around 1983, I was a young guy and I was walking through the Century City Mall and there was an art gallery there. I saw the piece that is on the cover of the book, Mirage. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I mean, it stopped me as if I had seen an incredible woman. Even though I wasn’t making that much money, I went in, asked how much the piece was, and I bought it. It was the first piece of art I ever really bought, and that was about a year and a half before he died. Then I found another one, and they were maybe around $500 dollars framed. About a month and a half after Patrick died, the gallery called and offered $5,000 for the same pieces. This guy, nobody knew who he was, but his art was everywhere. This was the first time I bought art, understood how it could go up in value, and fell in love with the work. As of a few years ago I bought an estate collection of Nagel’s work. I would show friends of mine his work, and they would say “Oh yeah, I remember that. His stuff was all over the ‘80s.” Yet nobody knew who he was! And I started thinking, here is a guy who had a massive influence on people like Toulouse-Latrec, Chéret, Ruscha, even Norman Rockwell. I thought, what a shame that his name wasn’t as remembered. That’s primarily why I wrote the book.
How do you think Patrick Nagel captured his era?
Well, he did in quite a few ways. One of the first ways was actually about how [publisher and art dealer] Karl Bornstein handled Patrick Nagel. They couldn’t be more different, and part of the reason I was interested in Patrick Nagel was due to my background in brand strategy. Bornstein totally failed to make Nagel’s name a presence in history. He was a symptom of the sort of short-term gains the '80s were known for, rather than a focus on brand longevity. So that’s one of the first ways he sort of resembled the time. One of the other ways revolves around the Nagel moment. Look at the women he drew: He captures the moment of possibility of connection with an erotic and sensual woman. The whole decade of the '80s was a super energetic time, a can-do kind of era. Men felt it, and women felt it. His art really resonated with the notion of possibility. The idea of this glamour, this woman you want to talk to, personal wealth—it was all about to happen. People were actually doing and achieving more than they thought they could. It was a kind of vain decade were people were taking care of themselves and looking good. Patrick captured this. Patrick also grew up conservative and a traditional American guy. He did everything he was supposed to—got married, got a girl pregnant, fought in Vietnam. By the time he got home, the whole world had changed. So too did Patrick. He got rid of the whole traditional American thing and made his dreams come true. He changed at the same pace America did.
Do you feel as if we’ll never equal the level of fun that was had in the '80s?
I feel really bad about saying this to guys in their 20s and 30s, but it’s not coming back. Unless something really really drastic happens, I can’t see it ever returning. The younger generation has been conditioned to limit its footprint, and that was completely different from what the '80s were—unless we get into a situation where we start empowering ourselves again, and we tell our kids, “Look you can build it too.” I just don’t see that today. I feel like today everybody is just concerned with survival. It’s frightening. You should want the house on the hill. You should want to be able to easily provide for your kids. It’s not wrong to want nice things. You shouldn’t have to go your whole life never wanting more.
Was Patrick Nagel a womanizer, or did his interest in the erotic qualities of women come from more of a distance?
Well I will say this, because I have a great deal of respect for him, and in fact there weren’t a lot of survivors from the '80s. A lot of his peers aren’t around. Everyone who knew him loved the guy, and none of the women who have known him mention any possibility of an affair with him. That may be because the man was intensely private and not open to discussing such things, but in all honesty no one really knows. There are hints and things like that, and hearsay about how he has had his jaunts. Yet no one has come forward.
How do you think making art for Playboy influenced his work and vice-versa?
That’s a great question, and it’s got a couple different answers. You got to remember Playboy started in the early '50s. By the time Nagel was really in the scene, the magazine is already about 20 or 25 years old. Around the mid- and late '70s, a whole new generation was coming in. At that time your premiere artist was Leroy Neiman; it was all the old guys. America was changing: There was traditional America and sexually liberated America. Playboy needed to make that change, and originally it was more focused around sports, lifestyle, conversations you’d have at the bar, man’s-man kind of stuff. He was the only artist who was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted on the page spreads he was responsible for. So in some ways I think that they got that direction from him. He was so updated to what the magazine wanted, which was elegant sensuality. His art venerated women in a graceful but also highly sexual way, fusing elegance with the sexuality people expected from the magazine.
“You get this physical thing, a reaction that some call lust and others objectification. Who cares? Its real!”
In your book you say Nagel had a respect for women that he channeled through an illustrative and erotic lens. How does that differ from objectification?
Let me go on record here: There is nothing wrong with objectification at all. If you look at the back of a quarter or on the back of a silver dollar, Lady Liberty is a personification of noble ideas. There is nothing wrong with seeing a beautiful person who strikes a chord of sexuality or sensuality. I think that is why Nagel’s work resonates so well. When you look at it, you aren’t seeing motherhood, you’re not seeing your sister. You are seeing an image of a woman constructed sensually, and focused on beauty. There is nothing degrading about it. Beauty exists, and we have to accept that. When I saw that first piece, it was a physical experience. Just like when you see someone really attractive and your body tells you, This one is different. You get this physical thing, a reaction that some call lust and others objectification. Who cares? Its real!
Obviously, Nagel’s work relies heavily on elegance resulting from minimalism. How do you think he might have arrived at this artistic choice?
In software development, there is a motto for mistakes made: “It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” If you look at Nagel’s early work, including everything up until his army career, you will notice that he is not comfortable with backgrounds. I mean it’s just the dopiest, lumpiest, stuff that he could put in there. You could tell this guy is just making mistakes. He was experimenting with high contrast, not a lot half tones, not a lot of shadows. He tries to mess around with shadows and stuff, but it just isn’t working. Then he goes to Vietnam. After a paratrooping disaster, he is assigned to become a mapmaker. As a mapmaker, the only tools you have to work with are pen and ink, only black and white, and he starts to make do. He does so out of necessity. At that time, he starts doing illustration in solely black and white. He realizes that he doesn’t need all the gradation, he doesn’t need backgrounds, and his final collectible style went from 1979-1984. This was the time post-Vietnam that he locked down his trademark style.
In writing this book, what was the most interesting detail you were able to uncover while researching it?
I guess I have to fall in line with everyone else. I’ll say two things: The first is that this guy was just the nicest guy that everyone knew. I mean, everyone loved him. The other thing I will say is that Patrick had a razor-sharp sarcastic wit. This guy would mutter things under his breath and anyone and everyone was susceptible—even Joan Collins, during the presentation of her portrait. Also, everybody felt as if he was their good friend. He had respect for the individual and everybody felt that. It would be a shame if history forgot him.